Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Chinese characters on red background

Xinxin Ming, the Most Ancient Text of Zen Buddhism


Written by the third Zen Mahayana patriarch Sengcan, this is perennial source of wisdom.

The Way of the supreme is not difficult,
If only people will give up preferences.
Like not, dislike not.
Be illuminated.
If you are off by a millimeter,
You will be off by as much as earth is separate from heaven.
If you want to see Truth,
Call no life experience favorable or unfavorable.
To be caught between favorable and unfavorable
Is the sickness of the mind.

Differentiating, discriminating, comparing, dividing, all these are operations of our mind. Educated in the game of oppositions, we treat reality as an ensemble in which we should somehow pick sides. We know, for instance, that we like a foreign city by comparing it to our place of birth. Therefore we move forward in life subjected to attachment and comparison. This is a machinelike obstinacy that ends up exasperating us; it confronts us with others and with ourselves in an unsolvable conflict.

Buddha stated that everything we are emerges from our thought; to think is to make the world and this is why the world is the faithful reflection of what we are, or, in other words, what we think.

The eleven initial lines with which we opened this article belong to Xinxin Mingconsidered by many the most ancient text in Zen Buddhism. In the shape of a mystical and didactic poem, Xinxin Ming (which roughly translates as “Faith in Mind”) summarizes in its 584 Chinese characters the essence of the Mahayana school of Zen. Since neither Bodhidharma nor Huiko, previous Zen patriarchs, left any kind of text, at least not one that can be attributed to them for certain, the extensive Xinxin Ming, written by Huiko’s successor, Sengcan (606 AD), is our safest access to the original teachings of The Great Vehicle Buddhism.

Xinxin Ming is like a rich fountain where we can stop to drink making a momentary pause in the agitated course of our lives. To carry out and exegesis of each verse would take too much space for this article, and a profound reflection on the whole poem would suffice to subsume oneself in centuries of wisdom and revelations, however, simply picking a few verses at random, Xinxin Ming can guarantee instant serenity for anyone’s soul.

This fragment, for instance, stands out. It warns us of the danger of extremes and initiates us on the Middle Way of Buddha’s teachings:

If you want to stop an action and so restore stillness
You will only end up putting in more action.

This is an important warning if we consider that often, in the West, our efforts to reach peace (exhaustive meditation, superficial practice of mystical disciplines, etc.) derive in greater tensions and a more noticeable masking of reality’s essence. Bent on experiencing the concepts imported from the Orient, we often fall in the disgrace of greater contradiction. We step away from the Middle Way just to get closer to a supposed spirituality which clouds our judgement and mars our gaze even more.

People are always stuck at the two extremes—
If only they know the One (Mind)!

The Middle Way is very simple to follow: stay away from the extremes and that is how you will move forward. But as long as we take reality as a board where we commit to some and oppose others, confronting good and evil, hate and love, enmity and concord as if they were irreconcilable poles, we will never take the middle path, the simplest one, and the most beautiful to transit.

If you miss the One (Mind),
You would miss the two:
When you want to chase away existence,
You betray emptiness just as you espouse emptiness.
The more you talk and worry,
The more you sever your link with reality.
When you give up talk and worry
You will encounter no obstructions wherever you go….

This is a wise piece of advice for the Western philosopher, always bent on reflecting about the world, oscillating between a whole distrust towards the reality of things and the reality or unreality of his transcendence.  Giving up talk and worry is perhaps the greatest obstacle for most of us, whether we are philosophers or not, but educated in the fascination for turmoil and jubilation. Xinxin Ming is, as we said before, a good trough where we can stop and drink in the middle of the path, especially if this does not fit the conditions of the Middle Way prescribed by Buddha.

When Huiko desperately asked Bodhidharma to appease his spirit, Bodhidharma answered:

Bring him here and I shall appease him.

To which Huiko answered:

I have sought him for a long time, but I have not yet found him.

Bodhidharma had just appeased Huiko’s spirit. When he understood the futility of any pursuit —since there was nothing to appease (all is mind, remember) — he reached, suddenly, crossed by the revelation of the Koan, abrupt illumination, or, Satori.

Xinxin Ming can be considered a prolonged Koan. Ask it questions, listen to its mute answers, and let’s hope that its wisdom can force us to enter at once, effortlessly, as Bodhidharma did unto Huiko ––the perfect path that ignores extremes.

Related Articles